Creature Comforts

Cynthia Massarsky ’77 has devoted her career to good causes, and her latest venture is no exception.

When Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012, Cynthia Massarsky ’77 of Tenafly, N.J., was determined to help a family in a neighboring town whose house had been destroyed. Knowing it would take more than new Sheetrock to make their home feel complete, Massarsky persuaded a furniture store to provide free sofas, tables and chairs, and rallied volunteers to carry the items inside. “It was wonderful to see so many people come together to give this family a new beginning,” she says.

The experience inspired Massarsky to found Making-It-Home, a program run through the Bergen Volunteer Center in Bergen County, N.J., that brings gently used home furnishings donated by local residents to formerly homeless veterans, victims of domestic abuse, seniors and people with disabilities who are moving from emergency shelters into unfurnished apartments. Her organization has helped hundreds of low-income recipients, who lack the funds to buy basic furniture once they relocate. Massarsky says having a comfortable place to sleep, sit and eat gives her clients a much-needed sense of security. “Being somewhere that feels like home gives them a foundation for taking the next step, whatever that may be,” she says.

Julia Orlando, the director of the Bergen County Housing, Health and Human Services Center often refers clients to Making-It-Home. She recalls one family of five who turned to Massarsky after they left a local homeless shelter. Orlando says Massarsky made a point of including curtains and throw pillows with bedroom furniture for the family’s young daughter, to make their new apartment seem more welcoming. “It’s that careful attention to detail that makes what she does so special,” says Orlando.

The venture is what Massarsky describes as the “capstone” of a 40-year career devoted to good causes. A psychology major at Simmons, she landed a part-time job in her senior year as a typist for the founding deans of what is now the School of Business, which sparked a greater interest in business. That led to post-graduation jobs running a childcare center at the Harvard Business School and starting what Massarsky believes was the first after-school program of its kind in the country for older children, located in Brookline, Mass. She then earned a scholarship to Cornell, where she got an MBA and realized that her skills could also help nonprofits thrive. “I tried hard to think about accounting or finance or something more traditional, but I just couldn’t get excited about that,” she says. “There had to be something with more meaning.”

“Being somewhere that feels like home gives them a foundation for taking the next step, whatever that may be.” —Cynthia Massarsky ’77

After a series of senior positions with organizations like Marlo Thomas’ Free to Be Foundation, she started her own consulting firm in 1990 that specialized in marketing, business development and strategic planning for charities and corporate philanthropies like Save the Children, the U.S. Fund for UNICEF and the Ford Foundation. She also directed an annual business plan competition for the Pew Charitable Trusts, Goldman Sachs Foundation and Yale School of Management that encouraged social entrepreneurship. That contest helped launch now-successful enterprises like First Book, which has distributed more than 175 million books to impoverished children worldwide. “It felt great to help groups like this take off,” she says.

Now 66, Massarsky says she’s thrilled to be making an impact through Making-It-Home. “I can see what a huge difference this makes in people’s lives,” she says. “It’s extremely satisfying.”